One of the critical pieces of any horror film (well, any film, but let’s stick to the subject) is knowing how far you’re going to push your story - sure, it’s all about twisting the knife, raising feelings of dread or fear or disgust or anxiety or whatever, but separate from that, I think, is the sense of escalation - are you going to hinge things on one moment or incident or revelation? Are you going to present the story one way and then throw in a twist or three? Are you just going to plod along with setpiece after setpiece in what I’m coming to call the “things happen, then more things happen” school of storytelling? As things get worse for the protagonists, how much worse are they going to get?
The Canal is a sharp, unrelenting story about perception and reality, and the way the truth is buried - literally and figuratively. The key here is unrelenting - this is a film that does not stop tightening the screws at all.
David Williams is a film archivist, and we meet up with him and his pregnant wife Alice as they are in the process of buying an old historic home in Ireland, near an old canal. They’re optimistic, happy, and excited about the future. But then, as we flash forward five years, there’s a distinct note of melancholy - David seems a little weary, a little beaten down, and it's clear that in the five years since he and Alice (and their young son Billy) bought their house some distance has grown between them. They love their son, but David spends a lot of long nights at the office, and increasingly, so is Alice. There’s one particular client with whom Alice seems to be spending a lot of time, and it’s beginning to worry David. It’s the picture of domestic discontent. He doesn’t want to believe the worst, but there it is. Into what is already a stressful life comes a new package of old, old police crime-scene footage from the early 20th century that David needs to work on restoring and preserving. It’s grim stuff - films taken at the site of a multiple murder, where a man killed his wife and children before ending his own life. Not the sort of thing a man already at odds with his own life needs to think about.
Especially when David realizes that the footage was shot in his house.
As it transpires, David and Alice’s historic home was indeed the site of a brutal murder, and the knowledge, combined with his own fears about his deteriorating relationship with Alice, begin to haunt David. It all begins with the story of a man whose marriage is failing, and plunges downward from there. There are ghosts here, and like any other good ghost story in recent memory (see also Lovely Molly, Absentia, Oculus), there’s a focus on the ways we can be haunted both by the mundane and the supernatural, and on the merging of past and present, the reliving of old events over and over again. David is obsessed with the house, David is obsessed with his increasing distance from Alice and protecting his son, and the two begin to blur. To that end, the denouement is pretty much what an observant viewer thinks it's going to be (and this really is one of the film's few shortcomings), but what’s especially noteworthy here is the trip it takes to get there. This film is not content to say “oh hey, maybe there are ghosts,” it peels back revelation on top of revelation stirring up all of the hidden muck of secret histories, letting nothing remain unburied, so that we come to realize that the real story behind the house’s past and David’s present is much, much worse than one would expect going in. Even though the ultimate outcome is more or less what we’d expect, the reasons for and implications of that outcome pack a much bigger wallop than they would otherwise.
It helps that the film is nicely understated for the most part. It relies primarily on briefly-glimpsed things, shadowy visions, and nightmare sequences for most of the heavy lifting, along with well-executed sound design and a keen sense of shot composition that establishes relationships early on, framing things in tight boxes like the old film that provides David's initial revelations, and provides for some truly striking images. As the story progresses, the film bleeds over into David's nightmares, David's life bleeds over into the film, and the present recapitulates the past. In that sense, it reminds me to some degree of Sinister, but where that film took an interesting idea and tried to build a film around it and then build a franchise around the film at the expense of the story they were trying to tell, this film just concerns itself with telling its story, seeing it out to its logical conclusion, digging past domestic tragedy and the horrific and the supernatural into madness and nightmare and evil, leaving the viewer gasping for breath as it comes to a close.